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American Beauty (1999)
Rated R

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, and Thora Birch

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) hates his life. He hates his job as a writer for an advertising magazine. He's grown apart from his family. His wife (Annette Bening), a real estate saleswoman, is "joyless" and his teenage daughter (Thora Birch) resents him. The highlight of his day is masturbating in the shower. So, rather than complain about it, Lester decides to take matters into his own hands and change his life for the better. American Beauty chronicles this change-of-life process and the effect it has on Lester, his family, and his neighbors.

American Beauty follows Lester's mid-life crisis by intertwining his actions, which include blackmailing his boss and buying a 1970 Firebird, with his fantasies involving his daughter's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Lester yearns for the days when his life was all ahead of him and he had no responsibilities. It's hard not to be sympathetic to his feelings, especially when the movie does such a beautiful job of making the alternative seem so unpleasant.

Lester is the main focus of the film, but he's not the only one feeling unhappy. His daughter, Jane, is saving money for breast implants she clearly doesn't need. She feels Lester doesn't care what happens to her as they haven't really talked for months. She finds solace in Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley,) a new neighbor who videotapes her every move while attempting to escape the wrath of his Marine colonel father.

Lester's wife, Carolyn, is cheating on him with her main business competitor, Buddy King (Peter Gallagher), "The King of Real Estate," who has agreed to help her sagging career. She has clearly become more interested in the material things in life, but also feels like she's a victim in the deteriorating relationship with her husband.

My initial description of the movie does little to accurately capture what the movie conveys. The movie's tagline is "Look closer" and that's exactly what this film does to suburban life and the feelings associated with happiness. It invites you in to look at life's hidden beauty and discover what really makes you happy.

The movie is a winner due to the combination of fantastic performances from the principal characters, a beautiful musical score, excellent direction by Sam Mendes, and a sharp script by Alan Ball. Thankfully, the heavy subject matter is given a comedic tone mainly due to the the sheer oddity of some of the situations. The interplay of the actors in these situations is simply brilliant and stunningly emotional.

Unfortunately, it makes the movie a bit hard to describe in such a way that sounds anywhere near as appealing as it should. So I'll say this: American Beauty has been nominated for eight Academy Awards this year. Frankly, I hope it wins in every category.

Trivia: The tagline and important theme of the film, "Look closer," can be seen in Lester's cubicle at work. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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